Posts Tagged ‘worship’

I made the mistake of asking a friend for some book suggestions related to the chapter on worship for the Provocative Christian Living book. He suggested a book that connects our worship of God to our doing justice for the poor, oppressed and enslaved. It was not what I expected but more than I could have hoped for.

The bottom line of Mark Labberton’s book, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”, is that we can’t say we love God if we do not love our neighbor. I know, that comes right out of 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” How we treat our neighbor, especially the poor and oppressed has a direct connection to our worship of God. In short, it is not possible to worship God if we are not concerned about the issues of pain and suffering that are faced by people made in God’s image.

I am reminded of a story of a congregation that was confronted with a dilemma one Sunday morning. Just like every other Sunday morning they made their way from their cars to their seats in the sanctuary. Each one was dressed in their Sunday best, including their obligatory Sunday morning smile and greeting for the other worshipers parading in to worship. What made this Sunday morning different was the man huddled in a corner near the bottom of the steps, outside, near the street. He was dirty and had his own uniquely unpleasant aroma. His hair was greasy and knotted, and covered by a dirty brown beanie pulled low over his eyes. An over-large tattered trench coat kept him warm while one arm remained hooked around a shopping cart loaded with the totality of his worldly possessions. No one spoke to him. Most turned away and made sure not to lock eyes with the man. Children who embarrassed their parents with overly loud questions about the man where told not to pay any attention.

Inside the sanctuary the service was about to begin. Everyone was seated in their normal places, the ones they always sat in, waiting quietly for the pastor to step onto the platform. To the shock and dismay of the entire congregation, the dirty, homeless stranger from outside came stumbling down the middle aisle and took a seat in the front row. No one dared move or say a word. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence felt like an eternity. Just when people expected the pastor to come out to begin the service and maybe deal with the man who was so out of place, the man stood up. He slowly walked up to the platform and had the audacity to step into the pulpit. To the gasps and bewilderment of the congregation, he removed his cap, took off the knotted wig, removed the tattered coat, wiped the grime from his face and revealed himself as their pastor in. All he needed to do was stand there. The Holy Spirit did the rest. People were confronted with their rejection of someone in need as they prepared to tell God how much they loved Him by worshiping as they always did.

It really gets back to what Jesus said about what we do for the sick, the prisoner, the naked, the hungry and the rejected. To the degree we serve them and care for them, we are serving and caring for Jesus. If we fail to serve them and care for them, then we really are not serving and caring for Jesus no matter how many songs of praise we sing or offerings of resources we make.

Buy caring about issues of justice and loving our distressed neighbor, we take worship out of the exclusive realm of the sanctuary or church auditorium. Instead, we find ourselves on the road to making worship a 24/7 act of giving ourselves to God. When we care for, and show love to others, we are honoring God who made them. You cannot honor the creator and dishonor that which he created. If I say I love Picasso but I slap graffiti on one of his paintings, then I am really making a statement about what I truly think of Picasso. If however I really love Picasso, then I will cherish and care for that which he painted. The same is true in our worship of God. If I really want to honor God, then I must cherish and care for that which He has made in His image. It is in that context that doing justice is what God wants from us in our worship of Him. It is summed up in these words from the Prophet Micah:

He has shown you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

I find it very interesting to consider “worst-case scenarios”. A few years ago I even bought a board game by that name. (By the way, don’t bother getting it. It became the fulfillment of it’s own name) But thinking about the worst-case scenario recently I thought, what would the typical church going American do if attending worship at a church building with lots of other people was no longer an option? What would you do if for some reason it was no longer legal or possible to do so? What if it was still legal to be a Christian, you just could never gather in a group of more than a few people at a time? What if terrorist threat levels meant there were no longer any large group gatherings, not just churches, but sporting events, schools and theme parks and concerts. Sound crazy? Often worst-case scenarios seem to be crazy until they actually happen. Think, The Black Death, The Titanic, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.

But lets just stick to the church gathering part of this scenario. What would you do? How would you continue to follow Jesus and grow in your faith if you could no longer gather in a “church building” with others? What would you do differently from the way you live your Christian life right now if you had no worship team to lead you, no pastor/teacher to instruct you, no large gathering to make you feel upbeat about your faith? I know that in some cases, maybe even a majority of cases, people would end up with a faith that withers and shrivels beyond recognition. The reason I am sure of that is that for large numbers of people that is the only activity that connects them to their faith.

For those of you who would keep there faith growing and vibrant in such a situation, I suspect that it would look something more like this. First of all you would have a radical commitment to spending a considerable amount of time each day in prayer, worship, and study of God’s Word. That prayer time would be less about giving God updates on you life since He already knows all that, and more about pouring out your love to Him and listening for His voice. The study of His Word would be systematic and not the Bible roulette verse of the day that is forgotten tomorrow. It would probably include writing your thoughts  a journal.

Then there would be the time spent with a couple of other Christians during the week, Maybe you would meet in your home or office or even Starbucks. But it would be consistent and a top priority. That time together would include sharing insights from your time with God, what you learned, what psalm or hymn or spiritual song really grabbed you in your worship time. It might include being honest about areas of struggle in your life and being prayed for, really prayed for, by the others in the group. In between those meeting times you would be on the phone to each other or email one another, urging one another on in love and good deeds.

There would be lots of time in your schedule to meet with that new follower of Christ whom you are mentoring since leading them to the Lord a few months ago. You would be talking with them about what the Lord is teaching them and about the obstacles they are facing recently. You would be encouraging them by letting them know that this is fairly normal after a few months. The early honeymoon of following Jesus, blessing that it is from God, is now winding down and the road is getting a little steeper. But you encourage them with the assurance that you will be with them every step of the way and remind them that the person they led to Jesus last week needs encouraged in the same way when the time comes.

You will head home to get dinner ready for the next door neighbors who you are loving for the sake of the Kingdom. It started when you cut their grass while they were on vacation and then invited them over for dinner once they got back. You thought of loving them that way, because last year when you went on vacation you wished someone had loved you like that. You came home to grass way too high and a refrigerator way too empty. One day while your neighbor was away you remembered Jesus telling us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”.  When they ask why you did that, you are prepared to give a defence for the hope that is within you. You are determined to not say something lame like, “Oh it was nothing” and instead say something like, “Jesus said we are to love our neighbors”.

You would end your day praying for the people in your life who don’t know Jesus. You would pray for open doors to love them with Jesus love and for the chance to answer questions about Jesus that they bring up. You would spend a bit more time reading God’s Word, just as a snack before bedtime since you already ate fully from His Word through out the day.

Does that sound like how you would want to live out your faith if you could no longer go to a building on Sunday with lots of other Christians? Well let me ask the obvious. Why do you need to have a worst-case scenario in order to live out your faith like that, when that is exactly how Jesus wants you to live out your faith, 24/7, no matter what? How provocative would your life for Jesus be if that was the norm and the large gathering was just icing on the cake?

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:23 & 24

When Jesus had a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, she asked a question about worship that was much like those we ask today. We ask what worship style or liturgy is the right one, what music is the most godly, what kind of space is the most holy. She was asking where the right place to worship really was. The Samaritans said it was on a mountain in their territory. The Jews said only in the Temple in Jerusalem could people really worship God. Jesus makes it clear that her question about where the right place to worship might be is a meaningless question. It is not important at all. What is important according to Jesus, is that we worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.

Much has been written on just what Jesus meant by Spirit and Truth and in the days ahead I’ll add a few hundred more words to that topic. But that is not what I deal with here. What amazes me in this passage is that Jesus said that the Father is looking for people to be His worshipers. What an amazing statement. Our heavenly Father is actually seeking people who will worship Him. At first glance from a human point of view that seems like a rather self-centered and even egotistical statement. It has even caused some to wonder if there is some psychological need that God has to be worshiped and that He is in fact a bit emotionally unhinged because of it.

It must be understood that God does not “need” us for anything. He is complete in and of Himself and we can add nothing to who He is. He is not lacking in anything. He has no emotional deficit that causes Him to need us to bow down to Him. God does not need our worship. But we need to worship God. That is the point. We were created to be in a relationship with God. It is a relationship in which we are to love and adore Him with all we are and all we have.

Ever since our fall into sin that relationship of love, adoration, and worship with God has been broken. We have not worshiped God with all we have and with all we are. And that is the problem. We need to worship. We were created to be worshiping beings. Our fulfillment can come only if we are in fact worshiping God to the fullest. But the impact of sin is that we don’t worship God in that way and instead attempt to find our fulfillment by worship something, anything, other than God. If there is any universal character trait found among human beings it is that we will worship something. It may be a totem pole, or a Hindu god, or material wealth, or fame, or sex, but we all worship something. By worship I mean that thing that we all long for and make choices in our lives to have or to serve. Satan has capitalized on our need to worship and uses that to lead us into destructive relationships with false gods.

In his incredible love for us, the Father sent the Son into the world in order to seek out for Himself people who would live fulfilled lives as true worshipers. Far from being an act that served to fulfill a need in His life, God sent the Son in order to fulfill a need in our lives. We need to worship. We will worship something, anything, even if it destroys us in the process. When Jesus came to save us it was not just to save us from sin, but to save us from destroying ourselves by worshiping a counterfeit god. It may be in part what is behind the first of the Ten Commandments that we will have no other God by the Lord Himself. It is a command for our own fulfillment and safety.

I find it at times to be an overwhelming thought that in spite of my predeliction to worship things that would ultimately destroy me, God in his mercy and love risked it all to draw me into a relationship of worship with Him. He gives me another chance to fulfill my created purpose and find ultimate joy and satisfaction. He came looking for me so that I could finally be a worshiper of Him. Not because He needs me to worship Him, but because I need me to worship Him.

For centuries Christianity in the western world has been infected by a disease. It was transmitted to us by some of the most important and influential thinkers in the history of Western Civilization. Chief among them would be the Greek Philosopher Plato. But quick on his heals would be Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle held a view of the world that essentially saw the spiritual world as good and the physical world as bad. The ideal is the spiritual. Everything that is physical is base and tainted and to be overcome.

The church took this philosophy and combined it with a false understanding of what the Bible, meant when it spoke of the flesh and the sinfulness of the flesh. Instead of understanding “the flesh” as meaning the sinful inclination that we all have as we live in the world, many people taught that anything having to do with the body and the physical world was bad. It didn’t help the situation any when the professional clergy allowed and even promoted a thinking and mindset that saw religious vocation as being spiritual and Godly and other vocations as being worldly even if necessary for this life.

Well it doesn’t take much of a leap to arrive at a place where Christians believed that those activities that are directly related to “church” functions are spiritual and other activities are worldly. Eventually pastors, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox were seen, as the people doing real spiritual work and Christians who functioned in the work-a-day world were not. In the process we lost the understanding that everyone has a calling from God, not just those “called to ministry”.

There was a time when what someone did as their occupation was known as “their calling”. If you were a blacksmith then that was your calling. If you were a mechanic, or mother, or a seamstress, or butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, that was your calling. We used a term that made this clear. We said that what you did in your job was your “vocation”. It comes from the same root as the word vocal. It was understood that God had in some way spoken and called you to that vocation. In addition, he wired you in some way so that you could be good at that calling.

This dualist world of a sacred arena and a secular arena was not what God created. God created a physical universe. In that physical universe he placed physical human beings. When He looked across all that He had created He did not say, “Well that’s not too bad. It is not as wonderful as the spiritual realm I have made, but it is not too bad”. Far from it, instead God looked out over all that His hands had made and he said that is good. In fact all during the creation process, at each step along the way, God pronounced each individual piece as good. When He finished with the whole thing He didn’t just say it was good. He looked at the physical world and said it was VERY GOOD!

Perhaps the most important demonstration God gives us that the physical world is not bad or evil or inherently sinful is to be found in Jesus Christ. God came into the world as the man Jesus. The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus was fully a man, facing all things as we do yet without falling to sin and at the same time fully God. He claimed equal authority with the Father, to forgive sins, to be worshipped, even to lay claim to ownership of the Temple. Theologians call the doctrine of the Son becoming man, The Incarnation. It gets defined as meaning “to be in the flesh”. The key root word is familiar to any lover of a good thick bowl of chili con carne. It is chili with meat. The incarnation is the biblical doctrine that God came and took on or became meat. It doesn’t get more material, physical, or fleshly than that. If there physical world as somehow inherently evil and the spiritual was the only good, then the incarnation would have never happened. Jesus would not have gone to the cross for our sin. And we would be destined to an eternal punishment.

But it was not just that Jesus became flesh that breaks down the sacred/secular divide. We also need to remember that Jesus only spent three years “doing ministry”. He spent eighteen years doing “secular” work. He fulfilled the calling of being a carpenter. What he did as a carpenter was good. He did it in obedience to the calling the Father had placed on his life. He did it as an act of worship. It is no different in your life. What you do serving in some identified area of “ministry” is important. But what you do in service to God in the marketplace, the school, the community group, or your home is also sacred. It is something that God has called you to for His glory, the praise of His name, and the expanding of His kingdom.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
Colossians 2:17

One cold and snowy winter weekend a group of people from North Park church outside Pittsburgh went away for a retreat that focused on spiritual disciplines. The setting was a local convent that rented out space for such things. I don’t remember a whole lot about that weekend. I do remember it was cold. There are also vague images of lots of candles, John Michael Talbot music in the background, and a time of communion that was done very quietly and it was cold. Did I mention that it was cold? The cold was an important part of the weekend because it set the backdrop for something I learned in a most profound way. No matter what you do, it can and should be an act of worship to God. It should be done in the name of Jesus, for His glory, for His honor, to the praise of His name.

The nuns at this convent raised honeybees. One afternoon there was a nun out by the beehives. Her traditional black nuns habit made for a stark contrast to the snow and ice on the ground. As she was tending the beehives she noticed something on the snow at her feet. Bending over she made a cup with her hands and scooped up a seemingly frozen and dead honeybee. With great tenderness she actually spoke to the bee and then blew ever so gently on it with her warm breath. There she stood in the cold and snow, patiently, gently, breathing warmth and life into the bee. After a few minutes and many soft and gentle wisps of breath, the warmth that she blew on the bee revived it. It began to stir. As the tiny wings gave evidence of buzzing movement she eased it towards the opening from which it had fallen and ushered it back inside the familiar and protective surroundings of the hive.

Many people watching that scene would have observed a woman in funny clothes risking getting stung by a bee that would never have been missed out of a hive of tens of thousands. Others would have paid her no attention in the first place. Maybe it was the spiritual emphasis of the weekend, or maybe it was her demeanor as she worked. Most likely it was a bit of both, but those of us who observed her saw an act of worship. This was a woman who projected a sense that no matter what she did, saying prayers, singing songs, reading scripture, or breathing life back into a honeybee, all of life was an act of worship, lived for the glory of God.

Clearly the Bible calls us to worship God. But just what does that mean? For most Christians worship is something that happens for an hour on Sunday when we gather with other Christians in a building designed for worship and sing songs to and about Him.  The songs seem to be the important component. Worship leaders will even introduce the time of singing my saying things like, “Now let’s stand and worship together”. Even the language of the people attending shows what we mean by worship. We tell people that we are going to worship, not at all meaning that we are about to let everything we do and say be done in the name of the Lord, but meaning that we are going to the specific time and place of worship. I have even heard people ask, “Have you worshiped this week” meaning did you attend one of those specific events. The unintended implication being that unless you had, then you could not have really worshiped God yet this week.

Others may have expanded the definition and see worship as the singing of songs to God no matter where you are and what time of the week it is. They may even see a regular time of being alone with God as a time of worship. That time may also include reading God’s Word and praying. Certainly that is a step in the right direction. But it is not enough. We must see worship as more than an activity that is somehow confined to a particular place or time or set of behaviors. We must begin to see worship more from the standpoint of our identity and not simply our activity.

When Paul told the Colossians that they were to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus he gave us an impossible task. It is impossible if it can only be accomplished by intentionally determining at every moment of every activity, how we can do that in the Lord’s name. We would end up spending the entirety of our lives trying to figure out just how to do each and every activity in the name of Jesus and probably have no room for actually doing each thing.

The only way to do all that we do in the Lord’s name is to have an orientation of our lives towards His glory. It must be something that is so embedded within us that we are automatically oriented towards bringing glory to Jesus. It has a great deal to do with love. When I really love my wife it takes little to no effort to demonstrate that, even in the mundane things of life. So when I do the dishes or make dinner, or send her a card or flowers, those things come out of the overflow of a heart that is lived towards her. It happens because she is in my thoughts and my heart. The same is true with our worship of God. Our love for Him should be such that even in the mundane things of life we do them with Him in mind. We do them in such a way as to please and honor Him. Putting a bee back in the hive is done out of the overflow of a heart that loves God. Serving the poor, tutoring a student, fixing a broken drain pipe, going to the gym, eating Thanksgiving leftovers, all become acts of worship when we do them in Jesus name and for His glory. Maybe that is in some way at the heart of what Jesus meant when he said that by serving the least among us we really serve Him. Such things are acts of worship done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers” John 4:23

When I listen to much that passes for Gospel preaching these days I get the very clear impression that the Gospel is all about me, my happiness, my comfort, my freedom, and my being delivered from the effects of sin that would send me to Hell. Certainly there is an aspect of the Gospel that is about our being delivered from the punishment due us because of sin. But that is a far cry from the common message that makes being a Christian all about my happiness. I wonder if the American ideal that we are to be free to pursue, “life, liberty, and happiness” has not crept into our understanding of the Gospel. Preachers call people to accept Jesus into their hearts so that they can be forgiven and be assured a place in heaven and so they can experience all the wonderful happiness that life can offer.

The problem is, this is so incredibly short sighted. At best it leaves people thinking that since they have punched their ticket to Heaven and are saved from Hell, then it is just a matter of waiting for that day. At worst it progresses into a theology that says God wants you healthy, wealthy, and full of happiness and if you are not then something is wrong with you. What this completely misses are two major points; it is not about accepting Jesus into your heart. It is about giving Him complete control of your life. And it is not only about what you are saved from. It is about being saved to a life that follows Christ and lives for Him, no matter what.

When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well he made it clear that God was calling people to Him for a purpose. That purpose was to be people who worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. That is an active thing. It is about giving your life to Jesus and seeking to glorify Him everywhere, everyday. In that sense it is fulfilling our original created purpose. We were made to be stewards of creation and to life in a relationship with God that honored Him. The redemption that we experience in Christ is intended to get us back to that relationship. We are to be people who exercise dominion over the earth and our lives so that God is honored.

Often times that honoring comes most, not in the times of our lives that are sweet and easy and pleasurable, but in the times of hardship and struggle. When the Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a letter to the Philippians. In it he commends them because his imprisonment, rather than making them fearful, has actually encouraged them all the more to share Christ with others. He even commends them for their willingness to endure hardship for the sake of Christ. In that suffering they share in the fellowship of Christ. They count it a sign of their faith and a privilege to suffer for Jesus. How different is that from the so called Gospel preached today that says if you suffer it is because you don’t have enough faith.

We have been saved for a purpose, a life lived in honor of Christ. We are to worship Him with our lives everyday. We are to honor Him with our service. We are to rejoice in all things, even, especially in the midst of hardship. We are to count it all joy when we suffer for His name sake and for the advancement of the Kingdom. That is Provocative Christian Living. It is living out the Gospel in a way that causes people to ask, how can you do that? It causes people to long for a faith like that in their own lives. It rings far more true and is far more powerful than the weak, distorted Gospel they have heard and tried and found wanting.